While it might have been something of a breakaway effort from Jim Abrahams, Hot Shots! belongs to the same school of slapstick comedy he pioneered with the Zucker brothers in the Airplane! and Naked Gun franchises, and stars Charlie Sheen as Lieutenant Sean “Topper” Harley, a pilot who returns to the US Air Force to confront his demons after a sustained period on the ground. Although it’s anchored in a parody of Top Gun, the screenplay more or less plays as series of loosely related comic sketches, featuring a wide array of cameo actors, and never congeals around a specific genre parody as programmatically as either Airplane! or The Naked Gun. Instead, Hot Shots! skewers a certain brand of cool, big-budget glossiness that came into vogue in the late 80s, and which encompassed a variety of genres, with cues here ranging from the late Rocky films, to 9 ½ Weeks, to Dances With Wolves, while looking back to older icons, such as Christopher Reeve in Superman, and Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind, as precursors to this stylised swagger.
Put more succinctly, Hot Shots! parodies the multiplex as a venue for “quality” cinematic experience, and the evolution of the blockbuster over the course of the previous decade to an apparently unassailable commercial and critical entity. In that context, Charlie Sheen is as perfectly cast as Leslie Nielsen was in The Naked Gun franchise, since his status as Martin Sheen’s son, paired with his breakout role in Wall Street, naturally positioned him as the beneficiary of this new blockbuster-driven milieu, and its uneasy relationship with the pioneers of New Hollywood whose stylistic innovations it so often cannibalised and streamlined. In Hot Shots!, that peculiar screen persona is given a name – “Paternal Conflict Syndrome” – and is what prompts Harley to return to the Air Force and work through his symptoms in the first place, since he is told, early on, that we are “years away from a vaccine.” Yet the film is the vaccine, lampooning the typical blockbuster’s yearning for the cinematic past – a past its very existence obliterates with so much glee that it’s impossible to take any other big-budget 90s release seriously for a good time after having watched it.
Yet while Hot Shots! may not ultimately be directed at a specific genre, or a specific film, it is certainly directed at a specific director, since this glossy blockbuster aesthetic gradually converges on a brilliantly pointed satire of the synthetic masculinity and hyperreal machismo that Tony Scott promulgated throughout the 80s – a masculine affect that not only became synonymous with a certain kind of blockbuster address, but that turned Scott’s version of Tom Cruise into the version of Tom Cruise that would dominate the next decade of cinema. No surprise, then, that Hot Shots! opens with a motorcycle cruising down a runway, as if bookending its parody with Top Gun and Days of Thunder, or even challenging Scott himself to match its inane energy in his next release without devolving into self-parody. Against that testosterone-soaked hyperbole, the sheer mildness of Sheen’s delivery becomes the joke of the film, with every character he meets observing that Harley is “so complex” even as his manner becomes ever more self-effacing and his presence more provisional. Punning, in particular, is perpetually used to undercut Scott’s style, especially when it revolves around Harley’s bike and motorcycle, or when he is called upon to defend his honour against his nemesis Kent Gregory, played by Cary Elwes. As in Airplane! and The Naked Gun, it’s the mildness of these puns, and Abrahams’ refusal to telegraph them in any marked way, that makes them so comically resonant, as they suffuse his mise-en-scenes with a blandness and banality that throws everything around them into preposterous relief.
Yet Hot Shots! isn’t merely content to parody Tony Scott’s brand of dialogue, but also skewers the self-consciously auteurist cinematography that was so integral to this glossy, big-budget moment – movements, angles and approaches that offered the camera itself as another hyper-masculine technology, sleek and streamlined as the machineries that it depicted. Nowhere is that clearer than in the sketches revolving around Lieutenant Jim “Wash Out” Pfaffenbach, played by Jon Cryer, whose rapport with Sheen might well have been the inspiration for Two and a Half Men. While Pfaffenbach has somehow found a place in the Navy, his skill set is severely limited by the fact that he has “walleye vision,” an all-encompassing perceptual condition that basically replicates the twists and turns of Scott’s hyper-kinetic camera, just as Sheen’s “Paternal Conflict Syndrome” replicates his dialogue.
With each new shot from Pfaffenbach’s perspective, we’re treated to yet another clever lens effect, most of which converge the focus in some way, imbuing even the most banal scenes with the austere air tunnel effect of Scott’s otherworldly runways and racetracks. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Pfaffenbach appears to be standing in for Scott’s ideal spectator, or to be inhabiting an entirely different film, in which every utterance from Sheen carves out a cathedral of vortical, vertiginous machismo. Indeed, so extreme is Pfaffenbach’s (mis)perception of the world that it quickly dissociates Harley from his own utterances, shrouding him in the same splendid isolation of Cruise in Scott’s films, but also anticipating the very different kind of untouchability of Charlie Harper in Two and a Half Men as well. So much of the comedy of Two and a Half Men comes from just this sense that Charlie’s creative utterances have somehow already been written by the time he even thinks of them, let alone puts them to paper – a scenario that turned the trope of the passive, receptive “artist” entirely on its head, and allowed Sheen to get away with the laziest, most disinterested and least labour-intensive performance on primetime television.
In Hot Shots! there’s a similar sense that Sheen is not really trying very hard, and not even “acting” all that much, to the point where his role in Two and a Half Men almost feels like the logical conclusion of this parody of Cruise, and Scott’s version of Cruise. Watching it, I wondered if this performance played some small part on Cruise’s own trajectory over the last two decades as well, which has been to define himself against this complacency as much as possible, and to instead adopt the most rigorous work ethic of any actor his age working in Hollywood. In any case, Hots Shots! plays as a formative moment for Sheen himself, who from this point on would start to incorporate this performative disinterest into even his most dramatic roles, ensuring that his more “serious” public moments – such as his vocal support for the 9/11 Truth Movement – would come off as slightly awry, and almost self-parodic, culminating with his media escapable in the late 2000s in which it became utterly impossible to distinguish between sincerity and disinterest, between boredom and play, in what he referred to as “this truth that stops refusing to call itself Charlie Sheen.”
For all that it galvanises the film, however, Pfaffenbach’s “walleye vision” isn’t chronic, and yet the only possible cure is a “delicate corneal replacement” that can only be effected by accessing the eye from behind, “through the rectum.” Faced with the prospect of such apparently invasive surgery, Pffafenbach decides to retain his perceptual quirks and repress any possible connection between his eye and his anus, even if it means exposing how anally retentive his perception is in the process, as well as reiterating his eye-anus continuum in the very process of repressing it. Whereas Scott’s films often envisaged testosterone as an imminent singularity of technology – the convergence of all machinery – here that horizon takes on a much more comic register, as every sublime vista becomes an act of anal retention, and every macho stare-off is either performatively oblivious to the possibility of a homosocial subtext or, alternatively, has frankly acknowledged, processed and embraced it.
It’s at these moments that Hot Shots! truly announces itself as a stylistic sequel to The Naked Gun. At its best, The Naked Gun skewered the simulation of rugged, hardboiled, soulful noirness that entranced neo-noir as a whole, if only by offering simulations that weren’t quite right, or weren’t quite plausible, along with a protagonist in Frank Drebin who couldn’t quite pull off the right level of gravitas or grandeur. Despite the absence of the Zuckers, Hot Shots! continues that trend in its sublime puncturing of stylised machismo, with many of the best moments reserved for Harley’s romance with therapist Ramada Thompson, played by Valeria Golino. As with The Naked Gun, the central joke is that there is something inherent effeminising about the fact that this hardboiled machismo needs to be simulated in the first place, let alone framed as an object of nostalgic consolation: “I look at all of you men and think, “What I wouldn’t give to be twenty years younger, and a woman.”
Still, Hot Shots! Moves way beyond The Naked Gun in the extent to which it positions this simulated masculinity as a venue for homosocial romance, as the love scenes between Harley and Ramada nearly always give way to the film’s most lavish, soulful and smouldering displays of male-male passion. Similarly, Hot Shots! has a much a keener sense than The Naked Gun of the extent to which this neo-noir affectation would become commodified as a quality cinematic experience, with some of the best romantic scenes almost playing as an advertisement for other products, just as the neo-noir genre had itself become a sustained advertisement for the viability of genre itself as a remunerative cinematic concept at this point in time (“Those are great legs!” “Thanks – I just had them lengthened”). In one particularly pointed scene, Harley and Ramada – the names themselves are product placement – go home together for the first time and engage in some “wild” foreplay, which starts with him dripping ice down her chest but quickly moves to him raiding the fridge for olives, grapes and then pizza to slide over her naked body, before frying some bacon upon her, as if demonstrating the latest and sleekest kitchen appliance to a credulous audience.
It’s at these moments that Abrahams really showcases his genius for “sensuous” flourishes that are just ever so slightly misplaced, as the very role of “flourish” in legitimising this new era of quality blockbusters becomes the main object of satire, and Sheen and the rest of the cast continually strain their facial expressions just a little too hard in order to impress us with the gravity and dexterity of the mise-en-scenes in which they appear. As with The Naked Gun, the best scenes could almost play as straight drama or straight romance – it’s merely the fact that we know that we’re watching a comedy that make them funny, just as it’s the endless recontextualisation that makes contemporary reaction gifs so memorable. Combined with all the murmured, muttered, under-the-breath monologues, the result is quite close to a “serious” release that has been overdubbed, not unlike Carl Reiner and Steve Martin’s collage films of the early 80s, with many of the flying sequences, in particular, often appearing to go out of their way to present themselves as stock footage.
Therein lies the rub, unfortunately, since if Hot Shots! has any real flaw it’s that the third act takes place entirely in the air, and consists almost entirely of these generic flying sequences. Intercut with other scenes (as they are at the beginning) they’re comic, but they can’t really sustain a twenty-minute sequence on their own, as the film lags and eventually descends into the very drama it started out by skewering. As all the characters are forced to bark their conversations and commands to each other above the drone of aircraft, Hot Shots! also moves away from the mildness that made it so memorable in its opening acts, gradually devolving into a fairly bland style of physical comedy that, in its dying stages, finally testifies to the absence of the Zuckers, whose films always manage to retain their absurdity right up until the necessary resolution. No wonder, then, that Abrahams felt compelled to continue the story with Hot Shots! Part Deux in 1993, which in some ways feels like a more worthy sequel to the original than its own final act, since, in its opening scenes, Hot Shots! is as sharp and succinct as any comedy made at this time, and goofier than all of them combined.